© 1938 William Faulkner
Years ago in a ninth-grade literature class, I chose to read a book by William Faulkner for a class project on the basis that he was a southern writer. My teacher cautioned me against trying The Sound and the Fury, warning me that it was difficult — a challenge out of scale for a minor paper. Well, dear readers, I persisted — for about a chapter. Then, faced with Faulkner’s bewildering narrative style –,a torrent of words with few marks of punctuation, flowing ceaslessly like the Mississippi — I returned to my teacher with tail between my legs and asked for something else, and thus read The Old Man and the Sea for the first time. Ever since then, the memory of Faulkner has haunted me. I associate his writing with both brain-melting difficulty and with embarrassment, and yet…still I’ve wanted to read him. The prevailing reason is the same: William Faulkner is a southern writer. He is not just a southern writer, though, he’s one of The Southern Writers, always mentioned with Flannery O’Connor as though the two were manufactured as a set, like a pair of pants.
The Unvanquished is the story of a young boy (Bayard Sartoris) who comes of age amid the Civil War and reconstruction, along with his close friend Marengo (“Ringo”). Ringo begins the novel as a slave, but the narrator mentions early on that he and Bayard were so close in age that they suckled at the same breast, and both lived in dread awe of The Colonel and Granny. While The Colonel (John Sartoris) is off at war, fighting to keep the damyanks out of Vicksburg, Granny is the boss. Actually, I almost suspect she remains the boss when The Colonel is home, for this is a woman who trucks into the middle of a warzone to demand the Yankees return her stolen mules, her slaves, and her chest of silver. Fearless, she uses fabricated requisition papers to steal and sell livestock to the invading army — not growing rich, but using the proceeds to support her community of Jefferson, burnt-out by the war. Shady business brings forth shadier persons, though, and soon death visits the Sartoris family. In the collection’s conclusion, young Bayard — who is now a twenty-something law student — must confront the man who robbed him of his father upholding the family’s honor but heedful of the consequences should he make the wrong choice.
If you have never read Faulkner, The Unvanquished is a promising work to test the waters, It’s one of his shorter pieces, and the stories’ length allow an unfamiliar reader to dive into Faulkner without chance of drowning. That style of writing, the torrent of consciousness (“stream” won’t do for Faulkner), is present here, but not nearly as overwhelming as I remembered from Sound and Fury. Although these stories are filled with death, as the State’s armies lay waste to the South, Granny’s confrontations with the Yank officers always have humor about them, as the officers regard her with astonished admiration. One of them thanks God that Jefferson David never thought to draft an army of grannies and orphans, for a regiment of Sartorises would be the Union’s undoing.